REINING IN THE RANCHER
Available December 1, 2008 on eHarlequin.com
For these two members of the Love Done Me Wrong Club, a “friends with benefits” thing was all their affair was supposed to have been. Until Thea Benedict realizes she’s falling for horse breeder – and beleagured single dad – Johnny Griego, anyway. So she breaks it off…only to discover, some months later, her diaphragm hadn’t fit quite as snuggly as she’d hoped. But this small-town waitress isn’t one for believing in miracles, either that this pregnancy will take after a series of miscarriages during her first marriage, or that Johnny’s proposal stems from anything other than a sense of duty.
“Here.” Amazed her hand was steady, Thea held out a glass with an inch of whiskey in it. Slowly, Johnny lifted puzzled, troubled eyes to hers, making her want to do nothing more than wrap her arms around him and hold on tight. After a wordless moment, his gaze dropped back to the glass.
“Something I ran across in your ‘medicine cabinet’.”
He pulled a face. “Stuff’s probably ten years old.”
“Then it oughtta be good and ripe by now.” When he looked at her again, his eyes slightly narrowed, her heart ka-thumped. “What is it?”
“You’re paler than usual. You feeling okay?”
“I’m fine.” She wiggled the glass, making the booze shimmer. “Drink up.”
Even after he took it, though, he didn’t seem in any hurry to down its contents. “Where’s yours?”
“I’m not the one who needs to chill,” she said, thinking, Good save, chickie.
“I don’t need—”
“Oh, believe me, honey, you do.”
Finally he knocked back the booze, then grimaced. “Damn, woman – you tryin’ to kill me?”
“Think of it as puttin’ you out of your misery.” She sat beside him on the bench. But not too close. Normally the earthy, honest smell of a man who’s been working horses in the hot spring sun – or at least, the smell of this man – didn’t bother her at all. These days, though—
“And you’re here in what capacity, exactly?” Johnny asked.
“I’m thinking referee,” Thea said after a brief pause, then laid her hand on his wrist. “Oh, Johnny…I’m so sorry.” More than you have any idea.
Half smiling, Johnny leaned against the paneled wall, apparently letting the whiskey do its thing. “I guess I came down a little hard on the kids.”
“You had cause.”
He sighed like…well, like a man who’d just found out his teenage daughter was pregnant. “You think I should go find her? Them?”
“Unless you’ve had a change of heart in the last three minutes, I’m gonna say no.”
“You can’t possibly believe I should let her marry Jesse?”
“She’s having his baby, sugar. I’m not sure you get a vote.”
Johnny squinted at the empty glass in the sunlight. “Unfortunately, Rach is still gonna be pregnant when this wears off.”
“I know,” Thea said gently, hurting for him. Especially considering he had no idea about the other shoe she was dangling over his head.
“Damn, Thea,” he said softly. “I miss you.”
“You miss the sex,” she said, not missing a beat. And not particularly surprised, considering his woebegone expression when they’d broken up.
“No, I miss you. Okay, and the sex. I’d have to be dead not to miss the sex.”
At Thea’s sigh, Johnny slid a sad, hopeful grin in her direction. She sighed again. “Okay, I miss you, too.”
“So the sex was good?”
And wasn’t that just like a man, constantly looking for an ego-boost? Especially when it came to bedroom matters. When her mouth tucked up at the corners, Johnny chuckled, real low in his throat, like he used to when they’d be finished and lying tangled up in her bed, and she’d stretch, all cat-in-the-cream-like, and Johnny’d get that Again, please? glint in his eyes…
Yeah, just like that, she thought. Or maybe that was the booze. Please, God, let it be the booze—
“So…?” he said, all goofy-grinnin’, and she thought, Nope, not the booze.
“The sex wasn’t that good.”
“Oooh, honey, that’s harsh. ”
Thea patted Johnny’s knee with deliberate condescension, knowing that if she had a hope in hell of getting through what she had to tell him – whenever that turned out to be – she had to make it crystal clear there’d be no traveling down certain roads again. No matter how badly she wanted to leave her hand on that hard, muscled thigh. “What it is, honey, is over.”
Johnny’s pushed breath told her he knew she spoke the truth, which should’ve been more of a relief than it was. She’d have to work on that. Then he frowned at her.
“How’d you happen to be here, anyway? We’ve barely spoken in months.”
“Rach called me,” she said, grateful she didn’t have to lie.
“She wanted you to get her back?”
Also true. “Apparently so.”
Johnny faced front again. “This is my fault.”
“How on earth do you figure that?”
“I should’ve kept a closer eye on her, should’ve…I don’t know.” He grimaced. “Something. Kat’s gonna blow a fuse.”
“Oh, and you think this couldn’t’ve happened on your ex’s watch? That girls don’t get pregnant in New York City? Kids have sex, Johnny. Just like they’ve always done, if they want it bad enough. I sure as hell did. So no beating yourself up about this, you hear me? Why’re you looking at me like that?”
“You never told me you had sex when you were a kid.”
“I was sixteen, it wasn’t anybody you know, and it sucked.” She shrugged. “My memory of it’s like seeing some outfit you just gotta have, only when you get it home it doesn’t look at all like you thought it would, but you can’t return it because it was a final sale, so you shove it in the back of the closet and basically forget about it.”
Johnny looked a little lost for a second, then recovered to say, “But this is different, Rach’s my little girl—”
“You didn’t let your toddler run into traffic, for heaven’s sake! She knew exactly what she was getting into.”
That got a frown. “She discussed this with you?”
Uh, boy. Thea could hardly tell him that Rach had glommed onto her because – according to the girl – talking to her dad was like talking to a rock. “Only in general terms. About how a gal needs to respect herself enough to not feel pressured into doing anything she doesn’t want to do.” She faced him again. “And that’s about all anybody can do. Other than lock her up.”
“It had occurred to me.”
“Rach is a good kid, Johnny,” she said gently. “And so is Jesse.” When Johnny looked at Thea like she’d said she’d just seen one of his horses fly, she laughed. “Maybe he’s not as sharp as Rach, and maybe he went a little nuts with the tattoos, but I’ve known him and his brothers since they were little. He’s solid and steady, he doesn’t drink or do drugs, and he genuinely cares about your daughter.”
“He’s also nineteen.”
“As were we all at some point. And we all lived through it,” she added when Johnny turned away, snorting in disgust. “But good kids sometimes do dumb things. That’s not always a reflection on their parents. Rach also wouldn’t be the first girl to marry her high school sweetheart. And make it work.”
Johnny leaned forward, poking his hand through his thick, hat-headed hair, the gray hairs at his temples bristlier than the rest of it. “She also wouldn’t be the first person to marry young and have it completely fall apart, either,” he said bitterly, and she knew what he was getting at. All too well.
With age definitely came experience. In and of itself, not a bad thing. But with experience also came caution, tagging along like an annoying younger sibling – which was okay if it kept you out of trouble, not so much if it kept you from fully embracing life.
The way Thea saw it, Johnny wasn’t so much still hung up on his ex as he was just plain scared of screwing up again. As for Thea, working at making a man fall in love with her was not her thing. If she was going to put her heart on the line, was it too much to ask that she be loved back?
However, despite Johnny’s and her relationship – or lack thereof – being deadlocked, she had not completely given up on the idea of true love, because without that she figured she may as well just lay down and die. So now she said, in all earnestness, “But Rach and Jesse aren’t you and Kat. You said yourself, you and your ex were a disaster waiting to happen.”
“And we only got married was because Kat got pregnant. How’s this any different?”
“Because Rach and Jess love each other,” she said carefully, watching a muscle tense in his cheek when her words lanced a still sensitive area. She knew Johnny’d pretty much been a wreck when the marriage blew up. But she’d also gathered that although Johnny’d suggested the divorce, Kat hadn’t exactly kept her relief a secret. The whole shebang had done a real head trip on the man sitting beside her, making him even more sensitive about his fathering abilities your average divorced dad.
“Johnny, listen to me – nobody could blame you for not wanting this for Rach. But if it’s really what she wants, then you’ve got two choices – be there for her, or cut her loose and see if she floats.”
Horrified eyes cut to hers. “I could never turn my back on my own kid! Hell, Thea – I thought you knew me better than that! But all I have to say is…” He stood and crossed to the bar, pouring himself another shot. “I do not know how people with more than one kid survive, and that’s the truth. If I had to do this all over again,” he said, the glass halfway to his lips, “I think I’d kill myself.”
Yeah, about that, she thought, thinking this would probably be a good time to make her exit. Except unfortunately she’d been blessed – or cursed, more likely – with a face like a damned billboard. And despite Johnny’s being saddled with that pesky Y chromosome, he’d always been remarkably adept at knowing when something was bothering her. That he hadn’t today was understandable, given the circumstances. But now – bless his heart – his radar apparently kicked in, because he lowered the glass, frowning at her.
“Thea? What’s going on?” he said, not two seconds before a swearing Rachel came crashing through the front door and stomped down the hall toward her room. Johnny’s head jerked toward the swearing and the stomping, and Thea thought, Hallelujah, a reprieve.
“You go on,” she said, but he’d already turned back to her, color drained from face.
“Oh, hell. Not you, too?”
After a very long moment, she nodded, and Johnny stared at her for about ten seconds with that recently Tasered look, before, strangely, erupting in laughter. Then all at once he stopped, like somebody’d flipped a switch, suddenly worried eyes raking her up and down.
“So far, so good,” she said, and he clutched the back of his neck as he looked away, muttering, and Thea said, “You should probably see to Rachel,” and Johnny swiveled back around so fast she took a step backwards.
“Don’t even think about leaving,” he said, then took off, leaving Thea to wonder why life never seemed to go the way you saw it in your head.
Copyright 2008, Karen Templeton-Berger. All rights reserved